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Congressman Grijalva and friends on the power of storytelling and why the Sonoran Desert is worth protecting

Highlights from the Center for Western Priorities’ live podcast in Tucson, Arizona

Lauren Bogard
Sep 6, 2019 · 13 min read

The Center for Western Priorities’ (CWP) summer road tour continued in August with the latest episode of our “Go West, Young Podcast” recorded live in Tucson.

Our guests on the Tucson panel included:

CWP’s Deputy Director, Aaron Weiss, facilitated a wide-ranging conversation on why the Sonoran Desert is unique, including the biodiversity of species that depend on the region for survival, as well as the unique role that indigenous nations have played as historical inhabitants and as leaders in the efforts to conserve and protect what makes southern Arizona so special. Some of the highlights from our conversation in Tucson are detailed below.

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Live at American Eat Company in Tucson, Arizona

The following excerpts have been edited for clarity.

On effective community engagement in land and resource management decisions:

Congressman Grijalva: “[Some] communities have been left out of the process and I think once the American people know that you’re giving away a shared responsibility and resource, peoples’ minds start to look at this a little closer than they have in the past, and that’s a key point to what we want to do in the future.”

Stephanie Sklar: “One of the great things about the way the Sonoran Institute works is we work in communities, we have a collaborative stakeholder driven process, we work at the center of the Venn diagram where everybody agrees; there are always shared values at the community level because no one wants their community to suck, and so we find that once we are able to have a conversation and use a certain kind of vocabulary with people, a lot of the things we want to achieve are the same.”

Len Necefer: “What I have seen in this current administration, whether it’s in Bears Ears, in BLM oil and gas leasing or in the Arctic Refuge is that simply when facts, science or the views of indigenous communities or communities impacted don’t line up with the intended action, they’re often discarded.”

On meaningful and effective engagement with tribal nations on natural resource issues:

Grijalva: “One of the approaches we’ve taken in the [House Natural Resources] Committee is to elevate the discussion of indigenous communities and indigenous nations to a level that it’s a stand alone committee, Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. is the subcommittee with the purpose of making sure that the voice of Indian country is everywhere. We’re going to talk about fishing (a voice), we’re going to talk about extraction (a voice), we’re going to talk about habitat (a voice), so that when you elevate the presence it adds more power.”

Sklar: “They [tribes] need to be at the table from the beginning, not at the end, and then they need to give input because we don’t know everything, we don’t know what they’re dealing with and how they’re making decisions and they’re sovereign nations and we’re not treating them with the same level of respect they deserve.”

Necefer: “For the past two years we’ve been partnering with the state of Colorado and the Commission of Indian Affairs to bring together tribal nations and leaders from the outdoor industry to talk about issues of conservation, outdoor industry, etc and try to build these links and connections that are really important. One of the things we believe is that outdoor recreation is simply a vehicle for understanding and caring about the outdoors.”

On the importance of congressional oversight and legislative progress:

Grijalva: “The advantage for us in this session is that we’re in the majority, and as such we’re able to stop some of the worst things. We need to continue to exercise that oversight in a professional but deliberate and a strong way, and not ignore that very important function that Congress has as a co-equal branch of government.”

“People say, ‘why are you passing these bills when they’re not going to go anywhere in the Senate?’ I think you’re also setting a template so that the American people can see that there are obvious choices going forward and hopefully that gives us some impetus and puts some pressure on my Senate colleagues to look at these things much more seriously than they are right now.”

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Bobcat in Saguaro, Organ Pipe National Monument

On the importance of efforts to protect public lands and resources:

Grijalva: “This is not just a political fight, an ideological fight, this is a fundamental fight about those shared values that we have, those areas that have been conserved for generations… suddenly we find ourselves trying to hang onto what we have, instead of growing the equity of the American people’s holdings which is their public lands and their waterways, and their coastlines and their oceans.”

“I tell people this is a new West that we’re dealing with here, this is not the guy with the grubstake pulling his burro up the mountain to go look for something, that time is long gone. We’re dealing with multinational corporations, we’re dealing with mostly foreign-owned mining that comes in to extract everything and most of it is exported, and not one penny [comes] back.”

Sklar: “If you look back at some of the most impactful environmental laws, they were passed in Republican administrations. I worked at the Nature Conservancy in the 80’s as my first environmental job and we used to say, ‘conservation is a conservative value.’ Now you see people who have a very specific reason to want to overturn environmental laws responsible for being a guardian for those same environmental laws.”

On the impact of storytelling to inspire conservation:

Necefer: “In my work at the University of Arizona and in my personal company I do work with professional athletes and also do adventure storytelling and using the landscape as a way to convey these millenia-long stories of indigenous people using the vehicle of outdoor recreation. One of the projects I was really privileged to work on was bringing a couple Patagonia athletes to come run near the Rosemont mine area and then educate them about the impacts this mine would have on indigenous communities, to talking about mining issues in and around Cochise Stronghold, which some of you may know the Tucson area and southern area is a world class climbing region in the world. People come from Europe and Asia to come climb at places like Cochise and the significance for me and where I see that line that kind of drags me into this place is how much it is like, when I go out and climb, it’s like pulling a book off the shelf and reading a part of that history, and being a part of it, and more importantly writing that next chapter.”

Sklar: “One of the ways to connect people and communities to the natural resources that nourish and sustain them is to listen to their stories, and so we wanted to go out and hear the stories, and they’re not of one language. We are a binational organization; our largest office is in Mexicali, Mexico. It’s actually twice as large as our Arizona and Colorado operations right now because of our work in the Colorado River delta to be a truly binational organization.

Necefer: “The story of Bears Ears and the Arctic Refuge are the same story, the backdrop has changed. We made an entire movie about the importance about protecting the Arctic Refuge without showing the refuge once, and that was very intentional because we wanted to show that at the end of the day, environmental issues are human rights issues, and for the Gwich’in, they’ve been stewarding this landscape for forty thousand years and the track record speaks for itself. We look at places here in the Southwest around Tucson and very much it’s that same story of stewardship and the fact that indigenous peoples have worked and created policies and management plans for millenia that have protected these places, and to be simply dismissive of that, I just feel sorry, it’s really missing out on an opportunity, and for me and my view, and how I was taught as a Navajo person, it’s incredibly selfish.”

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Climber near Cochise Stronghold in Southern Arizona. Photo credit: Murray Foubister

On protecting the Grand Canyon and reforming the 1872 Mining Law:

Grijalva: “Uranium mining around the Grand Canyon is a ‘no.’ You just don’t do it. And if you want to protect the resource then this is the opportunity. That ties to the 1872 [mining] law. The reform that we’re going to promote and bring forward is really three essential things: One, you’re going to pay royalties, for once. All that’s extracted, there’s not one penny that goes back, for mitigation, for reclamation, for clean up; and two, that land agencies with public participation being key to it, that they will have the option to say no, which they don’t have now, and I think the third thing is to elevate the analysis of sacred sites, cultural resources, to a level that’s in the top tier as opposed to after the fact.”

On the impacts of uranium mining on Navajo communities:

Necefer: “Back in the 50’s in my community, uranium mining during the Cold War was significant and a vast majority of the uranium that produced our nuclear weapons and various nuclear technologies came from the Navajo Nation, but one of the costs that was cut was the protections for workers; the protection for the environment was often skirted and seen as simply just inconvenient to turning a profit. A great example of that was that my grandfather was a uranium miner for about 10 years in a place called Cove, Arizona. He worked the 2-on, 2-off schedule and one of the things that he talked about is that he didn’t know what he was mining, and the company wouldn’t give them breathing protection, they would haul these trucks away without watering them down to reduce dust… basically small steps to reduce the cost to mine. Every two weeks he would come home and his jumpsuit would be covered in uranium dust and my mother and all of her siblings breathed that in. My grandfather had the most direct effects of this, he lost his left lung when he was 42 to silicosis… basically for the remaining part of his life he had an oxygen tank that he carried around and that he called his “tail.” Just looking back on that history, when there’s this talk about “Making America Great Again” it’s making America great again at other peoples’ expenses. What we’re talking about around natural resources and the environment is extraction at any cost.”

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Rainbow from Pima Point, Grand Canyon National Park

On efforts to enact and inspire action on climate change:

Grijalva: “The Senate is quite an abyss. I really believe that what we’re trying to do around the issue of climate change is talk about the fact that it is a reality, it is science-based, we don’t have to have the denial debate again, that’s pointless, and to start to talk about it in every area that we’re focused.”

“I think that climate change is a defining issue for us right now, the urgency is immediate, and the deniers, while in the driver’s seat in the sense of the administration are not what public opinion is about, that has changed dramatically.”

“I’ve been preaching since I got on this committee about the fact this is an issue that needs to be very inclusive, that needs to build a constituency of the future, so they too will be part of this protection and this ethic, and that work still lies ahead of us, but progress has been made.”

Sklar: “If you say math is the language of science, well, water is really the language of climate change, and climate change is a huge issue in the West. It’s an issue everywhere, but we’re like a laboratory; it happens here first. You can talk to people about water and you can get them to focus on climate at the same time. So in communities, we’re talking to them about resilience, we’re talking to them about threats like flood, fire and drought, and we’re giving them tools that they can use regardless of what the federal government is doing, and often regardless of what the state government is doing, that they can use in their own communities to take more control over their future and they’re working at the nexus between land and water.”

On working across borders to conserve rivers in the southwestern United States:

Sklar: “Rivers don’t know that they are supposed to be part of one country or another, so many of our very threatened rivers in the southwest are not only challenged by the fact that they’re not “wet” all the time, but also by the fact they cross borders. Here in Tucson and in southern Arizona, the Santa Cruz River, which is the river that the Sonoran Institute has been working on for decades is really believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited river in North America. They can trace agriculture back to this river for over 12,000 years.”

“The Santa Cruz River is a tri-national river; it’s not just the U.S. and Mexico, it’s the U.S., Mexico, and Tohono O’odham Nation and we’ve been working with the Tohono O’odham for decades on restoration, protection, cultural preservation of this river, and that’s only in the Colorado River Delta on this side. On the Mexican side, we work with the Cocopah Indians, and like Tohono O’odham they’re on both sides of the border and their cultural preservation is critical to the preservation of the river. They have been farming and living on that river for centuries.”

“The Drought Contingency Plan, which is first and foremost in everybody’s mind in the seven western states and Mexico, we would not have reached an agreement without the cooperation of the tribes that were involved here, Gila River and Colorado River in particular. We all have something to gain by being inclusive and we have everything to lose by not being inclusive.”

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Santa Cruz River near Tucson (Photo credit: Erin)

On connecting tribal nations and the outdoor recreation industry:

Necefer: “One of the things that we’ve done in my professional work is finding the common areas between tribes and the outdoor industry. There’s very few industries broadly that are taking a very hard stance on climate change and conservation and protecting our natural landscapes and for the outdoor industry it makes sense because that’s where their economy is based, it basically depends upon a stable environment. And in the same way for native nations and native peoples, the continuation of our cultures, languages and heritage depends on very much the same things. The reasons why languages go extinct are the same reasons why animals go extinct. Our work has been to create those alignments and also work collectively, so the Bears Ears was a great example of that, and we’re trying to do that again with the Arctic Refuge and we’ve done that again with the Rosemont mine as well.”

On legislative efforts to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund:

Grijalva: “Making the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanent was step number one; fully funding it and having it at a level where more communities and more projects can access that fund is the next step and that requires that we have a line item that begins to provide that kind of budgetary support to the LWCF now that it’s permanent.”

On Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt:

Grijalva: “Bernhardt is an insider in the sense that he’s worked at Interior before, knows that bureaucracy and that system, and he also came in with a portfolio from many of his lobbying activities and brought those with him. He’s one of the Secretaries that’s the most conflicted [in the Trump administration] if you look at the totality of what he represented as a lobbyist and if you look at where some of the more significant rollbacks in terms of regulatory protections and rules have occurred within the Department of the Interior.”

On efforts to oppose the Rosemont mine in southern Arizona:

Sklar: “The Sonoran Institute was very involved in the early days with Rosemont because we actually employed a full-time mining economist, and that’s extremely unusual for environmental groups but we live in Arizona and there are a lot of mines in Arizona so we felt it was compelling to make the economic argument for why certain types of mining were detrimental to the economic wellbeing of Arizona and we did a study on Rosemont mine and we were able to prove that Rosemont was actually negative for the economy and not positive and that it would detract far more from recreation and tourism and other businesses that were contributing to the environment in terms of long-term employment and the kind of jobs they were talking about.

We’ve got one more live podcast on our summer road tour in Missoula, Montana on September 26th. We’re partnering with the local chapter of the National Wildlife Federation, Montana Conservation Voters and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers for a happy hour and live podcast recording with a great panel of public lands experts to kick-off National Public Lands Day on Saturday, September 28th. Please join us!

For more information, visit Sign up for Look West to get daily public lands and energy news sent to your inbox, or subscribe to Go West, Young Podcast.


Stories about public lands and the outdoors from the Center…

Lauren Bogard

Written by

Director of Campaigns & Special Projects | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO



Stories about public lands and the outdoors from the Center for Western Priorities

Lauren Bogard

Written by

Director of Campaigns & Special Projects | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO



Stories about public lands and the outdoors from the Center for Western Priorities

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